The Not-So-Secret Truth About Emotional Eating

Photographed by Liz Clayman.
There are few things in this world we can all agree are bad. Terrorism, cancer — you know, the stuff everyone wishes we could eradicate once and for all, knowing life would just be better if they did not exist. When it comes to food, a lot of the things we once considered “bad” have been de-demonized. Sure, there are many people who still avoid carbs, and, of course, some very vocal factions of anti-eaters (anti-wheat, anti-corn, anti-processed-food-unless-it’s-my-birthday-then-fuck-it). But there is only one food issue that everyone seems to agree is absolutely bad: emotional eating.

We learn this from Day 1: Don’t eat just because you’re bored; cookies won’t solve your problems. It’s not just an issue for dieters or disordered eaters. Those with a totally normalized relationship to food understand that digging into a tub of ice cream when you’re upset is “being bad.” But there’s a not-so-dirty secret about emotional eating. And even I — after years of practicing food neutrality, working with professionals and reading the cold, hard, statistical facts — had a hard time accepting it. But when I did, everything changed for the better. So, here goes:

Emotional eating is normal. Everyone does it. We need to stop trying to stop it.

Before you call Homeland Security on me, a quick clarification: I’m not saying the cookies will solve your problems. Emotional eating isn’t the cure for cancer, but it’s also not cancer itself. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a standard reaction to stress, just like watching Golden Girls reruns when you’re sad or buying a bottle of nail polish on your way home from a lousy date. You know it’s not going to undo the crappy evening, you just need it — and you don’t stay up all night beating yourself up over the $4 bottle of nail polish. But when it’s a doughnut, that’s a different story.

“I hear people judge themselves so harshly for emotional eating,” says Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN. In her own nutritional-counseling practice, she constantly deals with this issue (or rather her clients’ issues with it). For most, it’s hard enough to recognize emotional eating as something innocuous, but Harrison points out it’s actually more than that. In many cases, this is a healthy behavior or even a helpful tool.
Photographed by Eva K. Salvi.

Often, emotional eating is, “a sign that something in them needs attention and soothing,” Harrison points out. That’s obvious when you think about it — but most of us don’t stop and think about it when we find ourselves plowing through a family-size bag of corn chips. We just freak out about the corn chips. And once you’re stuck in the corn-chip freakout, the actual issue gets pushed out of focus. “People often express so much shame around the behavior, but I try to help them see that eating may have met their emotional needs in many ways, and that maybe, at the time, it was the best coping mechanism they had,” adds Harrison. “So [I urge them] to have some compassion for that, even as they try to reduce their reliance on the behavior."

Then, there’s the other type of emotional eating: the happy kind. “There are plenty of foods we eat in order to connect and bond with others, not purely for hunger or nutritional needs,” says Harrison. Birthday cake is the classic example. There’s no biological necessity for birthday cake, but it still serves a purpose in our lives. Then, there are things like your mom’s roast chicken that tastes like home, or the tomato soup you crave whenever you have a cold. We tend to disparage comfort food, but the fact is that food can sometimes be comforting — and comfort is a legitimate need, too.

Complicating things further is the fact that a lot emotional eating isn’t 100% emotional. “In my practice, I see a lot of clients who consider themselves emotional eaters, but once we look into their eating patterns it becomes clear that the ‘emotional’ eating episodes are at least partly driven by hunger,” says Harrison. “I also often see people who deny, ignore, or don't feel their hunger for long stretches of time, and they may feel that they're eating purely in response to emotions — but actually, sometimes their low blood sugar is manifesting as sadness or anxiety.” It’s also important to remember that being hungry can intensify an existing feeling. So, if you’re already in an anxious state, then hunger joins the party, you might suddenly find yourself frantically shoving a burrito in your face. Because you feel like an emotional wreck, you could easily call this an “emotional eating episode.” But on any other day, you'd just call it “lunch.”

And if it is purely emotional, that’s no reason to beat yourself up (when has that ever made anything better?). It’s simply important to ask yourself if there was any hunger in the mix before identifying this as a case of emotional eating. “Most of the time, the behavior declines or disappears with greater awareness of physical needs,” says Harrison. But don’t forget: Eating to satisfy your physical needs and your personal desire — no matter what the source — is part of taking care of yourself. And there is nothing inherently disordered about that.
Photographed by Ben Ritter.
Of course, like any coping mechanism, emotional eating can become a serious problem. Harrison points out that when it’s the primary or only coping mechanism in someone’s repertoire, their emotional needs will never be met. (“Maybe what you really need is a hug or compassion — but the brownies won't give you those things, even if they do take away some of the pain and quell any physical hunger,” she says.) And, bingeing or other disordered eating are forms of emotional eating that need to be treated seriously, and with the help of a professional.

That’s why it’s so important to take a step back and acknowledge the reality of emotional eating — rather than paint it all with the same damning brush. Pathologizing something that’s not pathological hurts everyone: the normal eaters feeling needlessly guilty and the disordered eaters thinking they just need more self-control. Some emotional eaters are in need of help, but in a culture that says all emotional eating is bad, dangerous, and unhealthy, those severe cases can easily be overlooked. We’re all too busy “being bad” to recognize the difference between something benign and something that truly is of concern.

I’ll say it again: We don’t need to eradicate emotional eating. This is a losing battle, and fighting it only serves to drag out this long-ass war against ourselves. It’s time to surrender and start the peace talks. So you ate an “unnecessary” cookie. What now? You can choose the path of panic and punishment (again, because that’s worked out great in the past, right?). Or you can pause, and simply ask yourself a question: “Hey, self, how’s it going? Are you hungry? Are you sad? How can I help?”

For some reason, it’s easier to leap to judgment rather than compassion and curiosity. That’s just another inconvenient fact of being human. But compassion is in there somewhere, with all the other feelings. Maybe if we took the time to feel them more, we wouldn’t have to eat them all the time. Just something to chew on.

But when in doubt, remember: No matter why you’re eating it, it’s still a cookie. It’s not cancer.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

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